In the stage version of the Gospel of Luke, the costume department is kept busy with quick changes for the two character actors who appear at various times for all of Jesus’ miraculous healings.
There’s the man with an unclean spirit, who can’t be played by the same person who plays Simon’s mother-in-law, because there is no time for a costume change in between these two healings. The same goes for the leper (from Chapter Five) and the paralytic who is let down from the roof, in a cleverly staged scene that uses sophisticated rigging. The withered-hand glove from the prop department is one-size-fits-all, so can be worn by any actor. And no one at all has to play the Centurion’s servant, because he never actually appears on stage. A long wig is needed for the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. Real pigs are not used in the scene when the demon is driven out of a man from Gerasene, and sent into a herd of swine, who then rush headlong down a hill and into the lake to be drowned. These are only cardboard cutouts.
On any given night one of the cast members’ children can play the girl whom Jesus raises from the dead. It might be the child of the same person playing the woman who suffers from hemorrhages. With a costume change that same child can play the boy who has seizures and foams at the mouth, as long as the child is good at blowing bubbles. A few scenes go by with no healings, until we get to the woman who was crippled for eighteen years (who gets an artificial hunch and a rustic cane), and then a man with dropsy (who traditionally just keeps dropping everything that’s placed into his hands). With the right makeup, wig, and costume changes, you only need two people to play all these different roles up until this point, not counting the children.
But eventually, after the very moving scene with Lazarus and the rich man, Dives, in which poor old Lazarus is taken up to heaven (using the same rigging in reverse that was used earlier to drop the man down through the roof), and the self-satisfied Dives is being tortured in hell… eventually we arrive at the scene when Jesus heals the ten lepers. And for a few brief moments a lot more actors are needed on stage.
If, by good fortune, a production of Matthew’s Gospel is under way nearby that requires five wise virgins and five foolish virgins all on stage at once, this is helpful, because those ten virgins don’t appear until quite late in the Third Act of Matthew. So, in cities where the two productions are running at the same time, and where proximity of the theatres allows it, often the same ten actors will play the ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel who will also play the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s an efficient use of actors, all on union scale.
One of those ten actors, however, will always stand out from the rest. You see, all ten of the lepers make their plea to Jesus together as a group, keeping their distance as they call out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And all ten will turn together to exit Stage Right, when he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, and they see that they have been healed. They will head out, singing swelling songs of celebration as they go, whooping and cheering, and giving each other high-fives. But the tenth leper, when he hits his mark, just before disappearing into the wings with the others, will turn on his heel, run back to Center Stage, and cast himself down at the feet of Jesus, delivering an almost-out-of-control ecstatic outburst of thanksgiving that erupts as much from his heart as from his mouth as he praises Jesus’ Name and shouts “Hallelujah!”
It was an unnamed actor, playing the part of the tenth leper for the first time, in a traveling production touring provincial cities, with a company that always toured with dual productions of Luke and Matthew (in order to artificially stir up competition), who, in his first rehearsal, once famously stopped, right there on his mark, without throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, as the other nine lepers headed off stage, out the door, and across the street to put on their wise and foolish virgin costumes...
... as I say, this one actor stopped there on his mark, with one Leper’s Latex Long-sleeve™ still attached to his arm, while cries of raucous celebration were still audible in the wings on Stage Right...
... it was this guy who stopped, looked out at the director, and asked, “Wait. What’s my motivation here?”
You can understand that the director was not terribly interested in this rather ridiculous question, from a bit player, who would soon be running across the street to play either a wise or a foolish virgin, for all of about thirty seconds, depending on whether he happened to get a lamp with or without oil. “You’re a leper who’s been healed!” cried the director. “That’s your motivation! Now start groveling with thanks!”
But the thespian was having a moment. “Of course, I’ve been healed,” said the tenth leper. “But isn’t there more to it than that?
“Isn’t this a conversion experience?” he began. “Isn’t it an epiphany when this leper, who, since the day of his diagnosis, has assumed that his life would be lived thenceforth in shame, exiled from polite society, unable to make a living, estranged from his family, ignored by his friends, his confidence shaken to its core, his identity defined for ever by his malady?
“Was anything missing from the totality of his despair? Did he not disgust himself whenever he looked in the mirror? Did he not wonder if the leprous flesh he was wrapped in had permitted the disease to seep in through his pores? From his toes to his nose he had learned to dislike every inch of his body. And now, when he looked inside himself, in the long quiet hours when there was nobody to speak with, no company to be kept, and certainly no warm arms to be held in, he had learned to see himself as diseased from the inside out.
“Tush! Did not the other nine lepers see themselves in precisely the same way?
“And is not this one leper’s response - this stranger from a strange land, this interloper, who is but a foreigner and an alien... does not his gratitude erupt from the instantaneous recognition that the good things of his past have been restored, and a whole, entire new life has now been given to him by Jesus? Not only everything he’d lost - his family, his friends, his neighbors, his livelihood, and his home - but also a future that now lies before him again?!? It’s like he knew that he would only ever see the sun set from now on, but all of a sudden, he is watching the sun rise again!
“Is there anything at all that is part of the tenth leper’s life that he cannot now see as a gift from God? Is there any cell in his body that does not now rejoice? Is there an ounce of his breath that is unprepared to exult? Does he tingle? Does he glow, does he now shine with reflected light from the hand and heart and voice of his maker and his redeemer? What part of him has been unchanged by Christ’s gift? Where is there darkness in him that has not been transformed to light by the command of the divine Son? What path could he ever now tread, that would not seem to lead him on with signs of the Spirit’s wisdom? Is he not fully, completely, entirely, and exhaustively possessed by an immeasurable gratitude that will not rest until it makes itself known?!
“And is he not shocked and appalled, rocked, even, to the depth of his being, to look to his left and to his right, to cast a glance over his shoulder, to gaze behind him, and to find that he is all alone, unaccompanied by his nine companions in such recent misery and isolation, now equally transformed, equally restored, equally re-endowed with gifts that they could rightly have guessed would be lost to them all for ever... but nowhere to be found?!?!
“He is but one in ten. A fraction, a sliver, a slender portion of the miraculous blessing bestowed right there, on that unremarkable corner of the street. One tenth of the rejoicing that might be heard; one tenth of the relief; one tenth of the gushing, wonderful goodness! One bell in ten ringing its lonely peal! One voice from a ten-part choir! One tenth of the fanfare; one tenth of the effervescent bubbles. But one of ten horses that might be harnessed to the savior’s coach. One tenth of the yeast to leaven the bread; one tenth of the candles to brighten the night; one tenth of a troupe to dance in perfect synchronicity of praise. And, oh, how glorious to be a trumpet, a candle, a bubble, a dancer, a voice to proclaim thanksgiving for such a gift!
“But to be only a tenth of what you might be!? To accomplish, to dream, and to aim for only a tenth of what might otherwise lie ahead. To sparkle as merely a tenth of the sky; to dive to only a tenth of the depth of the sea; and to sing with only a tenth of your voice! How tiny, how small, how minute this one tenth, when so much has been given to so many! How sad, how inadequate, how very pathetic to sing as a solo a song intended for a chorus, to march alone in a victory parade meant for an army, to dance alone in a number choreographed for a whole company!”
And with that, that actor dropped to Jesus’ feet, and looked up with wild hopefulness in his eyes, stared straight at the director, and announced, “That is my motivation!”
It was an unsettling moment in the theatre to hear this bit player hold forth in such grandiose terms on such a minor role. But, nevertheless, everyone realized that, of course, the actor was correct in everything he had said. They had simply never heard anyone make such a big deal of the tenth leper. And it might be unsettling to us to discover that the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers may not be a healing miracle at all. It might be unsettling to discover that it’s really a lesson in stewardship.
Tell a story about ten lepers who have been healed and you can get almost anyone to agree that a return of 10 percent in thanksgiving is less than perfect from those to whom everything has been given by God. But when that 10 percent is credited to you or to me... well, then it’s a different story. When we are asked to account for our own gratitude, well... Don’t we know that it’s unrealistic to expect people to tithe? ... to give 10% of what we have to God?
It’s the math of the story of the healing of the ten lepers that makes it clear that it’s not really a story about healing. It’s really about what we give back to God, who gives us everything. And it’s the fact that the math is just so easy to do!
Because the point of the story is predicated on the realization that Jesus has given the lepers everything; he has given them their entire lives. Nothing has been untouched, un-healed, un-restored, or un-perfected by him, and each and every one of the lepers was equally gifted, equally blessed, equally transformed. We are meant to take note of how inadequate one-tenth seems as a response to God’s blessing, how incomplete it is, how much is still left over when all that’s returned to God is only one tenth of what was given by God’s hand. Jesus wants us to see all of the motivation that the actor so eloquently described, and to chime in with his assessment that the results are so disappointing, so much less than they should be. He wants it to be obvious that a return of ten percent is fairly paltry, considering the gift of life... and that that is precisely the gift we are considering. And he wants us to be ready to see things as the tenth leper sees them, to share his wild hopefulness from our place at the Master’s feet, and to understand our motivation, perhaps for the first time.
And the burden for the preacher, in light of this understanding, is not to convince a congregation to tithe - to find a way to get to ten percent. No! The burden of the preacher, is to help the congregation see that everything we have has been a gift from God: Every cell in our bodies, every ounce of our breath, every sunrise and sunset. Every skill, every position, every note that comes from our voices. Every sibling, and friend, every parent, and every passing acquaintance. Every achievement of our past, every obstacle overcome, every challenge before us, and every victory we win. Every moment of days gone by, and every hope for the future. All of it comes from God. The burden for the preacher, is not to spell out for you the precise algebra of your tithe, to help you decide whether it’s ten percent before or after taxes, to debate whether nine percent will do if the markets are down; it’s not even to make the case that you should probably give more to God than you pay for your gym, or your parking every month.
No, the burden of the preacher is to help you ask the question that that novice actor asked, standing there on his mark, the first time he played the tenth leper, before deciding that, indeed, he would throw himself at Jesus’ feet in an act of out-sized gratitude:
What is our motivation? What do you or I have that hasn’t come to us from the hand of God? What measure of thanksgiving could possibly be enough?
Answer those questions honestly, and all the rest will follow, and we will get up, and go on our way, for our faith will have made us well.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 October 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia